The King, His Son, and the Danger Bell – (A Parable)

Introduction and Translated by Shaul Magid

Introduction: The following is a translation of a parable embedded in a long homily from Rosh ha-Shana 1925 included in the collected pre-war sermons of R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira of Piasczeno entitled Derekh ha-Melekh. Like many parables describing God and humanity in many religions, this parable is based on the story of a king and his son. The frame of the story is about the complexity of a relationship, in this case, between Israel, God’s “first born” as scripture states, and a God who is both engaged with and also estranged from both the son and the world into which the son travels as an emissary to fulfill the will of his father. Parables like this are personalized, or mythologized, imaginings of our continuous attempt to make sense of the world we live in, a world where belief of any sort is always complicated by the unbelief born from disappointment and estrangement. 

Parables are windows into the human psyche and are not meant to be taken at face value. Shapira certainly did not believe that God was a king is some far-way royal palace, and Israel was his beloved son, sent to this world to rectify human maleficence. Rather, this mythologizes an event Shapira did believe in, and perhaps even quite literally; the event of Sinai as a moment of a divine human encounter that changed the world. Sinai, in the many ways it can be understood, initiates, or points to, a relationship which, like all relationships, are complex, full of expectations, disappointments, misunderstandings, fissures, ruptures, and reconciliation. The story of God and Israel is a story of estrangement laced with hope, peppered with expectation, and enveloped in human weakness.  

The Rosh ha-Shana liturgy points us toward a relational confrontation with a divine presence, however that may be understood. The liturgy offers us images, often dated, but also pregnant with the possibility of reinterpretation and revision. This parable too offers us a scenario of a human encounter between parent and child, in this case, the parent (God) asks the child (Israel) to perform a difficult task, fraught with danger and possible failure. To descend into the world and make it better. And yet the love between father and son drives each forward. The far-away land in the parable is, of course, the world we inhabit, a world where have become accustomed to live, but a world that simultaneously distracts us and evokes in us longing for the love and comfort of communion. 

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Delivered in Poland in 1925 we can imagine from this parable that Shapira’s world held both of those extremes in tension. Jews had lived in Poland for more than a thousand years, a land where Jews had become accustomed (the sages referred to Poland and Po lan, – here we will dwell). And yet the foundations of that world were beginning to shake, the threat of instability a continuous, and growing, presence. In some way, one can imagine the feeling that prayers were unheard, that somehow the Jews were abandoned to the fate of human depravity and hatred.

And yet, one should not seek, in my view, to justify this parable solely in its historical context. Even in better times, our world is often a place where distraction and accommodation reside together. The belief in a Sinai moment is always in danger of collapsing, like a language forgotten, a parent estranged, where our sense of purpose becomes clouded by our fatigue and the weakness of spirit. Great parables evoke emotions that extent far beyond their frame; yearnings, struggles, hope, and fear. When the psalmist cries out, “My God my God why have you abandoned me?” (Ps. 22:2-4) she is not speaking literally, but in a sense far deeper than any literal iteration can convey. Only one who carries love in their heart can truly feel abandoned.

Sinai carries expectations that carry with them feelings of loneliness. Rosh Ha-Shana marks a day when we can entreat God with a tool that expresses that sense of emergency that resides in the feeble heart of the one who prays (prayer does nothing if not break the heart). That tool is the shofar, what Shapira called “the bell of danger,” the call that transcends language, as if to say, “why have you abandoned me?” the unsaid where language fails. In Shapira’s parable, the shofar is a human call to God, begging for a sign of kinship, a taste of intimacy, a call in the dark forest where God has tried to locate his son, only to be disappointed that the son was distracted by the world. Man in search of God, God in search of man. In the sound of the shofar, they are both the same thing. That insight is no less relevant today than it was in Poland in 1925.

The Parable

There was once a great king of many lands, near and far. There was one country, very distant from the king, whose people were very unruly and everything there was in a state of disarray. The food was bad and the clothing was ragged. The customs in that place were unruly and the people’s behavior was dangerous. The king ordered all his emissaries to travel there to create some order.

The day came for the king to order his emissaries, but they all refused to go to that place. Finally, the king turned to his son and said, all of my emissaries have no relation to me and therefore they refuse to do that which I ask them. But you are my son, please don’t refuse my request to go to this place. And please don’t allow this place to be lost because of its behavior.

The king’s son replied that he will go, I am happy to do this because it is for you, he said. I only ask one thing from the king and that is that you help me with anything that I ask, even if I ask you to come to visit me in that place. The king promised his son everything he asked. The son then travelled to this far-away place.

In the beginning the son suffered greatly from all the wretchedness of that place. How could the son, who was used to the delicacies in king’s court, eat such unappealing bread? And the son who was used to fine clothing, how could he get used to wearing the sackcloth of that place? But after a while he got used to it, and he was able to influence this place toward the king’s wishes. 

Time and again the son asked the king for resources for the benefit of this land. And there were many times when the inhabitants of this land rose up against the son even when the son simply missed the king and he wrote his father to come and visit him. And this seemed to subdue all those who were against him.  But after a time the son slowly forgot the language of the king and he had to write letters to the king in the language of the place where he now resided, a language he had now become accustomed to. This caused great confusion because the inhabitants of the land [now being able to read the son’s entreaties] stole the letters the son wrote to the king and altered them to their will or destroyed them. They were distressed by seeing the son with the king. Thus each time the son requested that the king come, if the residents knew that this time he would really come, they would intentionally distract the son in conflicts with other places so that they would not see the son with the king. Thus the son and the king did not see one another for a very long time.

A long time passed without the son seeing the king and he was very distressed and missed his father terribly. For days on end he would not eat. From his anguish he pretty much abandoned the way of the land where he lived. All this time, he did not know what the inhabitants were doing with the letters he sent his father and thus he did not know when he asked for his father to come and the king did not fulfill his promise to do so [it was because his father never received the letters]. He was confused until he became ill from his pain. Only then did he remember that one of the things his father gave him for his journey was a “danger bell” (pa’amon sakana). If he found himself in great danger, [he was directed that] he should not wait until he sent a letter. Rather, he should blow this horn and the king would come immediately. If he waited any longer, he would not see his father. So he took this horn and he blew it. And the sound reverberated in the court of the king because of the danger, and the king quickly came to where the son resided to ask about the danger. 

And [when the king arrived] the son cried bitterly to his father, [why] you are asking me about the danger? Wouldn’t it more dangerous for you to be distant from me? You know that I came to this distant place, both physically and spiritually distant, all for you, and I had hoped I would see you more than those who dwell in your court. There, in your court, I wasn’t in danger and it was sufficient for me to see you only on festivals. But here I hoped you would come more often because danger is constantly hovering over me. And for me the danger was worth it if it meant I could be closer to you. And now you have abandoned me.

The directions that you gave me were that you demanded that the inhabitants sustain me. But when I came here to be nourished and was deprived of that which I had enjoyed in the royal house, I initially suffered greatly until I become accustomed to eating this unappetizing food. And I did this all for your sake, and in the end you abandoned me and all I got was a piece of bread. How I have fallen from heaven. And the son cried mightily. In truth, said the son, my body suffered from their food and [dealing with] all their conflicts with other lands. But this is not why I cry. Rather, I cry only because you distanced yourself from me.

Then the king explained to his son that all the letters he sent were destroyed since the inhabitants of the land knew what contents of the letters, since they were written in their language. And numerous times I did indeed come close to you even though I did not find in your letters any request that I should come. I too missed you dearly. However, when I arrived I did not find you at home [as the son was distracted by the inhabitants]. The king then continued to speak to his son in their own language so that the inhabitants would not understand, and they revived a bond and planned times to meet in a specific place. And the son returned to his daily work overjoyed.

The son remained in the foreign land for many days and became accustomed to drinking and became lethargic. It happened once that when the king visited him, he was in a state of a drunken stupor. And we know from the Baal Shem Tov that strong wine is harmful to the body. Seeing his father, he became fearful and stood up to speak with him, but he couldn’t focus his thoughts in the language of his father but could only speak in the language of the land where he lived. And those who opposed him in that land once again understood when the father would visit and again began to distract him and distract him in conflicts at the apportioned time in order that he not be able to see the king. THE END.

The meaning of this should be self-evident. God sent the souls of the Israel, God’s “first born,” into this world, which is in truth a dangerous place for the soul. We accepted this for the sake of the king in order to reveal divinity in the world. In the beginning, this was successful because our work was mostly in the realm of thought and no supernal adversary was aware of this. As divinity was revealed it mostly had an impact on us, and no stranger was aware of it. But the longer we remained here we slowly forgot our more abstract occupation, which was mostly in the realm of prayer. Thus much of our liturgy became blemished and fell into the hands of the demonic. And even the prayers that were successfully raised to a higher place, our adversaries were raised up with them. This prevented our ability to be with our father. And even when God came as a result of God’s own desire to be with us, God said [to Godself], why did I come when no one called me and no one answered me because they were too involved with worldly matters. This was because our adversaries had successfully distracted us.

However, we have in our possession a horn, the shofar that God commanded us to use in every conflict and in every crisis. And this shofar will create a sound that will resonate globally after which the king himself will reveal himself to us. And the shofar itself is not sufficient, rather it also requires our crying until our hearts will soften from the tears and our very souls will reveal itself to us and proclaim “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” 

The entire purpose we came into this world was that we would see God more than once a month or during the festivals when our souls would ascend to the Garden of Eden. Because there in the royal court we are safe from the dangers of the world. But here we live in a state of danger and you, God, have abandoned us and thus we are not privy to your divine disclosure except through many veils. We have descended so far that the goodness is revealed to us [only] in physical sustenance (food). But if the whole purpose of our descent was simply to eat, we had sufficient sustenance in the royal court [above].

Rather, we came down here [into this world] for you and now we find ourselves far from you, even as we call out to you every day. All of this we are willing to bear. But abandonment and distance from God we cannot bear, distance internal and external. Internal, the distance we feel in our feeble hearts, hearts dry and empty from passion, hearts void of light until we reach the level of “there is no divinity inside me.” Externally, how lowly is our value and how bitter this exile until the nations ask us “Where is your God? Why did your God abandon you in this dangerous place?” When Abraham saw the future exile of 400 years, great fear and darkness fell upon him. And now how much more so has this fear increased in this dangerous place.

And God said, quite the opposite, I never heard your cry because your prayers were blemished from your adversaries. And when I wanted to see you and come close to you, I could not find you and when I called, there was no answer because you were busy with worldly matters. Your minds and hearts were distanced and thus I could not find you.

Thus in order that our adversaries not have full command of our prayers, like now, the soul must speak with God in the language of the king, the language that connects one with one’s beloved. In the fullness of time and place the divine will be revealed in this language because the adversaries do not know the true language of devotion.

And this is the hinted meaning of “happy is the people that know the teruah” that they know how to appease their creator with the teruah. And they know that the teruah itself is not sufficient because the tekiyah draws down the divine and then one appease the creator. And what is the appeasement? “In the light of your countenance we will walk,” and when we walk we are always walking with you.

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